City's midfield powers FA Cup win; Torres still goal-shy for Chelsea
Without Carlos Tevez, Man City's attack is even more blunt than usual
The relegation battle in the EPL is now between the bottom-five clubs
The pressure has been lifted off Chelsea but Fernando Torres still struggling
1. Goals without Tevez. As Manchester City took on Manchester United in an English FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, there was no sign of Carlos Tevez, former United star and current City talisman. Tevez was reportedly in Italy seeking treatment for a hamstring injury. If the treatment fails, Tevez may have played his last game for City. A man of changeable moods, he has said he wants to leave and -- surely a coincidence -- he was linked to Juventus, a club in Italy, in Saturday's British tabloids.
This season, Tevez has scored or assisted on 50 percent of City's Premier League goals. That is an astonishing percentage. Peter Odemwingie, West Brom, is next at just over 36 percent, and he's just about his club's only attacking weapon. City has spent a fortune on strikers, but they tend to be a tactical afterthought in a squad built primarily to stifle opposing attacks and crush opposing midfields. Roberto Mancini, the City coach, rarely deviates from a five-man midfield, a system that works well with the energetic and versatile Tevez. On Saturday, even with two attacking wide players, the system left Mario Balotelli isolated and anonymous in attack.
The five-man midfield tends to force opponents, scared of being overrun, to play five midfielders of their own. Without his own deep-lying striker, Wayne Rooney, United coach Alex Ferguson started with just Dimitar Berbatov in attack. The Bulgarian squandered two good early chances, but after that, Yaya Toure, Nigel De Jong and Gareth Barry, City's powerful central trio, gradually overpowered United. Without Tevez to add the creative spark, City needs to find another way to create chances. On Saturday, as United struggled to clear, Toure ambushed Michael Carrick, United's one genuine defensive midfielder, sprinted forward and scored.
The game ended 1-0. City had reached the FA Cup final by bullying United into creating the chance it needed.
2. Some people never learn. One reason Paul Scholes has been around so long is that he is so good. Two years ago, when Scholes played his 600th game for United, Thierry Henry told a British tabloid that Scholes could "do everything." Well, one thing Scholes never seems to have learned is how to tackle. Time and again he misses the ball and catches the opponent. He is third on the all-time Premier League yellow card list and top in the Champions League. Is it simply poor technique? If so, how is it that a smart and talented 36-year-old midfielder at a big club hasn't had the problem coached out of him? Is it a small man's fear of being kicked? Or does Scholes, as Arsene Wenger has suggested, have a "dark side?"
On Saturday, with United trailing, 1-0, after 72 minutes, Scholes and Pablo Zabaleta both went for a bouncing ball. The City defender arrived a half step ahead, and raised his boot to kick the ball. Scholes also raised his boot and missed the ball. He seemed to have time to turn his leg and foot slightly away, but did not try and planted his cleats firmly in Zabaleta thighs. It looked like a nasty, vindictive act by a competitive man whose team was losing. He deservedly received a red card.
But what the camera also showed was that as he raised his foot, Scholes closed his eyes and started to turn his head away. Scholes can be a remarkably brave player, dribbling at much bigger defenders throwing his head at balls in the penalty area. But we all have situations that touch a nerve, and in challenges for loose balls, Scholes has often looked a bit like a baby elephant that has just seen a mouse.
3. The Torres watch. The pressure is off at Chelsea. After losing in the Champions league on Tuesday, the Blues cannot win anything and, barring a spectacular collapse, will finish in the top four and earn another shot at European glory. After the season, the club may fire Carlo Ancelotti as coach after and dump Didier Drogba. For now they are safe. The pressure seems to have lifted for almost everyone. It showed as Chelsea won, 3-1, at West Bromwich on Saturday.
Drogba, who no doubt would like to see out his Chelsea contract, was back to his raging bull best. He scored the first goal and set up the second as Chelsea took a 3-1 lead by halftime. Ancelotti had said he made a mistake on Tuesday at Manchester United when he started Fernando Torres instead of Drogba.
On Saturday, Torres started on the bench. He looked good there. He also looked good warming up. He looked very good jogging on with eight minutes left and the game won. He looked extremely good indeed as he stroked the ball into the net, but the offside flag was up as it was almost every time he touched the ball, the one time it didn't, Torres missed horribly. Without a goal since his expensive move, he is still under pressure. It shows.
4. Now its three from five. On the day when the sudden-death drama of a cup semifinal dominated English soccer, the league kept plodding along, continuing its unrelenting 38-match examination of just how good teams are.
Any team can score the occasional upset, as Wolves have shown this season, but a few spectacular victories are not enough.
Blackpool played the first half of the season as if it was rushing to put out a fire. On Saturday it looked exhausted as it lost, 3-1, at home to Wigan -- a team which it beat 4-0 on opening day.
West Ham had raised hopes with a recent good run. It took the lead after two minutes at home to Aston Villa, but, with its midfield shorn of Scott Parker, the Hammers managed only one shot in the last 70 minutes of the game. Gabriel Agbonlahor scored Villa's winner in added time, but, not for the first time this season, West Ham was lucky to have held on long enough to lose to a late goal.
Blackpool, West Ham and Wolves, which did not play, now make up the bottom three. Wigan jumped a point and a place above Blackpool. It is just behind plunging Blackburn, which lost at Everton.
Villa leapt to ninth, seven points and nine places above Blackpool. Birmingham beat Sunderland, 2-0, and both those clubs are on 38 points, five above Blackpool. If either of those teams loses its five remaining games it might go down, but both have a five-point cushion and two other teams between them and the trap door.
It looks as if the bottom five have the relegation battle to themselves.
5. A fashion icon. Did we already know that Wayne Rooney, despite his agent's efforts, is not really cut out for a modeling career? On Saturday, the poor fashion choices were not his. Someone had decided to dress United's unpicked players in a sorry uniform of track suit top over collar and tie -- an unfavorable contrast with the even-more banned Kolo Touré who looked quite suave in a jacket and tie on the City side. But Rooney, grimacing and writhing as he watched his team lose, looked extremely uncomfortable in his skin. The message was: this is not how to look.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.
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